Father Alexander Schmemann
In the Orthodox Church, the last Sunday before Great Lent – the day on which, at Vespers, Lent is liturgically announced and inaugurated – is called Forgiveness Sunday. On the morning of that Sunday, at the Divine Liturgy, we hear the words of Christ:
"If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses..." (Mark 6:14-15)
Then after Vespers – after hearing the announcement of Lent in the Great Prokeimenon: "Turn not away Thy face from Thy child for I am afflicted! Hear me speedily! Draw near unto my soul and deliver it!", after making our entrance into Lenten worship, with its special memories, with the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, with its prostrations – we ask forgiveness from each other, we perform the rite of forgiveness and reconciliation. And as we approach each other with words of reconciliation, the choir intones the Paschal hymns, filling the church with the anticipation of Paschal joy.
What is the meaning of this rite? Why is it that the Church wants us to begin Lenten season with forgiveness and reconciliation? These questions are in order because for too many people Lent means primarily, and almost exclusively, a change of diet, the compliance with ecclesiastical regulations concerning fasting. They understand fasting as an end in itself, as a "good deed" required by God and carrying in itself its merit and its reward. But, the Church spares no effort in revealing to us that fasting is but a means, one among many, towards a higher goal: the spiritual renewal of man, his return to God, true repentance and, therefore, true reconciliation. The Church spares no effort in warning us against a hypocritical and pharisaic fasting, against the reduction of religion to mere external obligations. As a Lenten hymn says:
Now, forgiveness stands at the very center of Christian faith and of Christian life because Christianity itself is, above all, the religion of forgiveness. God forgives us, and His forgiveness is in Christ, His Son, Whom He sends to us, so that by sharing in His humanity we may share in His love and be truly reconciled with God. Indeed, Christianity has no other content but love. And it is primarily the renewal of that love, a return to it, a growth in it, that we seek in Great Lent, in fasting and prayer, in the entire spirit and the entire effort of that season. Thus, truly forgiveness is both the beginning of, and the proper condition for the Lenten season.
In vain do you rejoice in no eating, O soul!
For you abstain from food,
But from passions you are not purified.
If you persevere in sin, you will perform a useless fast.
One may ask, however: Why should I perform this rite when I have no "enemies"? Why should I ask forgiveness from people who have done nothing to me, and whom I hardly know? To ask these questions, is to misunderstand the Orthodox teaching concerning forgiveness. It is true, that open enmity, personal hatred, real animosity may be absent from our life, though if we experience them, it may be easier for us to repent, for these feelings openly contradict Divine commandments. But, the Church reveals to us that there are much subtler ways of offending Divine Love. These are indifference, selfishness, lack of interest in other people, of any real concern for them -- in short, that wall which we usually erect around ourselves, thinking that by being "polite" and "friendly" we fulfill God’s commandments. The rite of forgiveness is so important precisely because it makes us realize – be it only for one minute – that our entire relationship to other men is wrong, makes us experience that encounter of one child of God with another, of one person created by God with another, makes us feel that mutual "recognition" which is so terribly lacking in our cold and dehumanized world.
On that unique evening, listening to the joyful Paschal hymns we are called to make a spiritual discovery: to taste of another mode of life and relationship with people, of life whose essence is love. We can discover that always and everywhere Christ, the Divine Love Himself, stands in the midst of us, transforming our mutual alienation into brotherhood. As l advance towards the other, as the other comes to me – we begin to realize that it is Christ Who brings us together by His love for both of us.
And because we make this discovery – and because this discovery is that of the Kingdom of God itself: the Kingdom of Peace and Love, of reconciliation with God and, in Him, with all that exists – we hear the hymns of that Feast, which once a year, "opens to us the doors of Paradise." We know why we shall fast and pray, what we shall seek during the long Lenten pilgrimage. Forgiveness Sunday: the day on which we acquire the power to make our fasting – true fasting; our effort – true effort; our reconciliation with God – true reconciliation.
The following is by Archpriest Daniel Gurevic, pastor of St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Church in Bethlehem, PA
The historical reality is different than it seems on many points. It may be true that the origin of Lent was as a preparation for baptism, but the way of life that it taught to the learners - the “catechumens”-can be practiced by the faithful after initiation. Indeed, the faithful also prayed and fasted during Lent with the catechumens, to give them support, to witness to the value of self-denial and repentance, and to renew their own baptismal fervor. The initiation of new Christians was an exercise of the whole Church, and so Lent was practiced by the neophytes aspiring to become good Christians, and to the life of faith and wished to grow closer to their goal of deification. It is simply untrue that did not have access to the kinds of food we have now, and, in some ways, they were better off, though they didn’t understand all the principles of nutrition. They deliberately chose to fast and abstain from certain foods, a choice which has become very difficult in the kind of culture in which we live. The difficulty of observing Lent points out the real need for it.
In the Byzantine Liturgy, Lent is called the season of “Alleluia.” This is contrary to the practice of Western Liturgy, where the singing of “ Alleluia, “ a hymn of joy, is forbidden during Lent. In fact, the issue became a point of contention between the Churches during the Middle Ages. It was not the most serious issue, however, because the real differences were matters of the organization of the Churches and the underlying problems of ecclesiastical structures. East and West became antagonistic and intolerant and looked for issues to disagree upon. Today this practice is no longer a problem. In reality, both Churches are saying the same thing in different ways. Lent is a period of sobriety and penance, and our joy is muted and moderated. The Western Church expressed this in their ritual by suppressing the singing of Alleluia: the Eastern Churches expressed this same reality through the practice of kneeling, which they forbade during the fifty days from Pascha (Easter) to Pentecost.
There is a liturgical reason why Lent is called the period of ‘ Alleluia.” At the Office of Morning Praise, called Matins, the usual opening hymn, “God the Lord has revealed himself to us,” is replaced by the triple “ Alleluia.” The singing of “ Alleluia,” also replaces the Prokeimenon at Vespers in the lesser fasting periods ( The Apostles, Dormition and Phillips Fasts) and is sung solemnly at funerals. This might seem odd, as “Alleluia” has become almost exclusively a song of joy. Its original meaning, though, is simply “Praise the Lord,” “Allelu Yah”, in which “Yah” is the name of God revealed to Moses, “I am.” Because it uses God’s name, it is a very solemn hymn, one that the early Christians did not translate from the Hebrew. By its meaning, it does not denote joy exclusively, but praise and glorification of God in all situations. In death, therefore, we praise God who has given us the gift of life and also of death as the passage to eternal life. Even though there may be an element of sadness, God is still to be glorified in all his words, since they are all done out of love for us.
The same is true of Lent. Self - denial and mortification do not give us pleasure of happiness, but they do bring with them a spiritual joy. We can sing “ Alleluia” while repenting, because through this exercise, we are drawing nearer to our God, who is the source of all joy and happiness. St. Paul compared asceticism to a race, a physical struggle, adding, “Run so as to win.” (1 Cor 9:24)
When we are getting our bodies into condition, we have the famous slogan, “ No pain, no gain.” Physical fitness requires struggle and pain. Spiritual fitness is no different. To become spiritually healthy we need to do penance and practice self-denial, so that we can learn to love others and become less selfish. While there are many concerns in modern society over our physical fitness, we should be even more concerned over our spiritual fitness. Lent has never been more necessary. The analogy holds also in the joy that comes from physical fitness. After much training, we can win the race, so also, if we train our souls well, we can win the kingdom of God. For this reason, Lent, while being a tie of struggle with ourselves, is also a joyful journey that can be made with the singing of “Alleluia.”